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Why Are (Mostly Liberal) American Jews Silent as Right-Wing Extremists in Israel Threaten the Country's Democracy?

Political scientist Peter Beinart says that how Jews handle power will be the test of the Jewish tradition.

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It’s important to remember that Zionism historically has been a very broad canvas. I consider myself a political Zionist who believes in the democratic Jewish state, but it’s worth remembering that there was another strain of Jewish Zionism called cultural Zionism. It was from Theodore Herzl’s great rival Ahad Ha'am. It doesn’t even necessarily believe that a Zionist had to believe in a Jewish state. It posited that there must be a Jewish community inside Israel representing a cultural point for Jewish people in the diaspora.

JH: I want to push you on this just a little bit. You say that you’re in favor of a distinctly Jewish and democratic state, and we do see this demographic pressure arising from differential birth rates. How do you deal with the fact that if trends continue, eventually Jewish people will not be in the majority, absent some intervention?

PB: Who knows where trends will take you. I think the answer is I would never support any coercive measures in any way aimed at keeping down Arab birth rates. I do think that it is well within Israel’s right to encourage Jewish immigration, but Israel will have to respond by being a country that offers fuller, and ultimately true equality to its Arab citizens, Palestinian citizens inside the Green Line. I don’t think that necessarily has to exclude a recognition that as part of its mission is a commitment to the protection of Jewish life. Today that's embodied in the right of return. At the very least I think this state should have a concern for Jews who suffer persecution and oppression around the world.

JH: In the book you talk about how this growing rightward lurch of Israeli society – with the support of the American Jewish establishment -- is alienating younger American Jews. You and I are about the same age, but we come from pretty different perspectives. You attend an orthodox synagogue. I consider myself Jewish ethnically and culturally, but I’m a non-practicing atheist type. Some would call me a "bad" Jew, and maybe I am.

From my perspective, I don’t know why it’s a problem that younger American Jews are finding themselves distanced from the state of Israel. We’re not under threat as Jews are in some other countries. I think we have a very secure position here in the United States. I don’t get why that’s more of a problem than Catholics not feeling an attachment to the Vatican. I’m not sure why I should care about a contested chunk of earth thousands of miles away.

PB: I guess I would say a couple of things. The first is that one of the things I think most young Jews feel most proud of in the Jewish tradition, whether they are religious or not, is that it contained ideas about justice and human dignity that have been very powerful throughout the world. Stories like the Exodus have inspired many people. It’s had such an influence on African American civil rights and so many other movements.

I guess the point I would make to those people is that this tradition, this Jewish tradition, written in our texts about dignity and justice was forged in powerlessness. Jews wrote these texts essentially when we were powerless. Jews haven’t had sovereignty for 2,000 years. If it turns out that the Jewish tradition cannot inform the actions of a Jewish state when Jews wield power; if it turns out that those traditions become essentially meaningless once Jews actually have the power to do to others what others have done to them, then that is a kind of retroactive judgment of the Jewish tradition itself, which is quite devastating.

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